Monday, March 8, 2010

Freedom's Just Another Word...

I've written before on the advantages of using information and communication technologies to promote public diplomacy objectives. Essentially, I believe that mobile and Internet technology have expanded the options available to public diplomats, and they've opened new channels of communication to non-state actors, giving them more opportunities to influence policy formation and enactment.

In recent months, the topic of Internet freedom has surfaced in the news--from Hillary Clinton's January remarks at the Newseum to a recent New York Times article on Internet impact on closed societies to ongoing coverage of the Italian court case involving Google Video and privacy laws.

In January, Clinton compared Internet-enabled information flows to samizdat--censored publications circulated in the former Soviet Union which were credited with helping to end the Cold War. As an advocate of free speech and unhindered international communication, I support information expansion, but I'd also like to caution against premature celebration of its effects.

That ICT development has opened the door to new methods of diplomacy is indisputable, but the success of such innovations is not a foregone conclusion. Diplomacy works best when it is multi-directional—not simply one hegemonic source swamping foreign nations with a torrential outpouring of its views, but a collaborative process that takes into account the history, culture, needs and objectives of all partners. New technologies, particularly those with networking and interactive elements, are uniquely adapted to facilitate such collaborations.

Multi-directional communication is a laudable goal, and can be used not only to disperse a uniquely domestic message abroad, but to collaborate with foreign nations and their citizens to identify common goals and values from which to build stronger relationships. But it is important to recognize that ICT development has not been universally positive. After all, the same tools that facilitate civil society organization have been used by al Qaeda and other anti-U.S. groups to recruit and distribute misinformation.

As Clinton noted in her speech, free information doesn't necessarily translate into free society. Nor can it be expected to automatically lead to the wide scale embrace of U.S. foreign policy objectives. Supporters of U.S. policy need to be prepared for the reality that supporting the right to free speech means supporting everybody's right to free speech, including--and perhaps especially--the rights of people with opposing views. By exporting online services to Iran, Cuba and Sudan, U.S. companies will be opening doors not only to allies, but to opponents as well. I'm not suggesting that the U.S. halt its outreach efforts; rather, I believe we should proceed, but with full awareness of the potential danger. When it comes to free speech, it is impossible to have one's cake and eat it too.

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